The power of peaceful defiance

On August 16, 1908, 3 000 Indians lead by Mohandas Gandhi gathered outside the Hamidia Mosque and burned their registration certificates - essentially "passes" for the immigrant Indian population - in a huge bonfire made in a cauldron.

About 18 months earlier a law had been proposed which would force all Indian "men" - males older than eight - to be fingerprinted and carry registration certificates. Those who couldn't or wouldn't produce this pass on demand were to be fined or imprisoned.

The 1908 peaceful defiance against the race laws of South Africa - then still a British colony under the leadership of Jan Smuts - marks the first significant act of passive resistance (satyagraha), Gandhi's budding philosophy that, close to four decades later, brought down the British Empire in India.

Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now

Gandhi said, "Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now." On January 28, 1948, two days before he was assassinated, Gandhi told a prayer meeting in New Delhi: "I have myself lived in South Africa for 20 years and I can therefore say that it's my country."

Gandhi first arrived in South Africa in 1893. He was a small-time lawyer who had left two failed practices in India, along with his wife and children, to pursue a case for a wealthy local businessman. His family later joined him in South Africa.

A dapper and fastidious dresser, he wore a fashionable moustache and elegant suits befitting the British colonial gentleman he desperately wanted to be accepted as.

It was the increasingly systematic racism he encountered in South Africa, most significantly, being thrown off a train for daring to buy a first-class ticket, that planted in him a growing sense of colonial injustice that would eventually make him the Empire's most persuasive enemy.

Gandhi had a cordial relationship with then South African prime minister Jan Smuts, until Smuts betrayed their agreement to repeal what was popularly known as the Black Act. Still, before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he sent Smuts a gift of a pair of sandals (Gandhi had by then shunned ownership of material possessions and wore a dhoti).

On Gandhi's 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals to the Mahatma (Great Soul) with these words: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."

Researched by Gillian Anstey with acknowledgement and thanks to:


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"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now"
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, 1908
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to extract information from a document, photographs and an extract from Gandhi's speech at the burning of registration certificates in 1908. They will be able to explore the motives of the Transvaal government in issuing passes to male Indians over the age of eight, and the bitter feelings it stirred up among the Indian community. Learners will be introduced to Gandhi's political philosophy - satyagraha - which can be translated as "the force which is born of truth and love, or non-violence".

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
Gandhi’s transformation from dapper young lawyer to sage in sandals.
Artwork photo gallery
Take a 360° tour of the memorial outside the Hamidia Mosque on Jennings Street, Fordsburg, Johannesburg.
Audio Slideshow